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Literature / Jennifer Government

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Jennifer Government is a 2003 novel by Max Barry about a Corporate Dystopia where the government is powerless. Set 20 Minutes into the Future, United States has become a globe-spanning corporate empire including the Americas (bar Cuba), the British Isles, South Africa, India, Japan, and Australia - a recent acquisition where most of the book takes place. A map provided in the book identifies some countries as "affiliates" and others as "socialist" and "fragmented markets." Government taxation and spending are things of the past, people take the surnames of their employer company, and the corporations are above the handful of laws they have allowed to remain.

The story begins when Corrupt Corporate Executive John Nike signs employee Hack Nike up for a new guerilla marketing scheme, killing a dozen customers that buy the latest model of their shoes to raise street cred. After Hack outsources the kill to NRA via the privatized police, the Government gets involved. The investigation is led by Jennifer Government, a single mother/secret agent who seems to have a personal stake in solving the case. Another story thread follows Hack's self-employed girlfriend, Violet (later Violet ExxonMobil) getting caught up in the war between US Alliance and Team Advantage, two "Customer Loyalty" programs that are effectively competing with each other and the government for control of the nation, and Hack getting involved with a group of anti-capitalist activists.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Billy Bechtel (Later Billy NRA) is laid off as Bechtel closes down their tank factory and he decides he wants to go skiing. Several misunderstandings later he is a part of John Nike's ultimate plan: to overthrow the government. We also follow stock trader Buy Mitsui, who is a bystander to the initial Nike shootings who ends up dating Jennifer.

Often compared with the dystopia novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Jennifer Government explores the opposite premise - a dystopia wherein the state has too little power, allowing the unchecked abuse of power by non-state actors. Taxation was abolished long ago, which one character points to as the beginning of serious problems since it removed people from any sort of investment in the larger society, and almost all government services (including law enforcement and road repair) have been privatized.note  The Government only has the power to investigate crimes against private property and life, and only the funding to help those who can pay.

The book contains examples of:

  • Action Mom: Jennifer, Government agent and single mother.
  • Alliterative Family: Kate's unmarried parents, John Nike and Jennifer Government.
  • Alliterative Name: Pearson Police.
  • Anarchy Is Chaos:
    • Averted, despite most of the world devolving into anarcho-capitalism. The novel explores a lot of the flaws of the society, including a lack of inhibitions on those who hold power, but there is never a collapse of society into chaos.
    • At one point late in the novel John Nike's aspirations for destroying the Government and letting the corporations have unlimited free reign gets decried by the head of US Alliance as a condition for chaos instead of anarchy.
  • Asshole Victim: The other John Nike, killed by Buy in the final confrontation at the Nike Town.
  • Attempted Rape: The other John Nike tries this on Violet. He gets beaten half to death with a crumpet toaster for it.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Surprisingly averted for a dystopia story: the other executives realize the insanity that John Nike's plans would lead them to, and choose to work with the Government to get things straightened out again.
  • Betty and Veronica: Hack's choice between sweet, visionary Claire and forceful, greedy Violet.
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
    • Violet isn't exactly "nice", but is nonetheless a physically unimposing geek. John does not expect her to fight back when he tries to force himself on her.
    • Hack, of all people, ends up leading an anti-corporate crusade - a far cry from the loser we meet at the start of the book.
    • Buy, one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet, ends up killing a man.It's John Nike and in self-defence, so no slight on his character.
  • Book Ends: The investigation into the Nike Town shootings begins and ends with a call from Jennifer to Jim GE, Hayley's father.
  • Butt-Monkey: Billy NRA just wants to go skiing. He finally escapes with a ski instructor near the end of the book.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: The book's message is that The Unfettered variety of Capitalism is especially detrimental. A girl gets killed in order to increase the street cred for some new shoes, 911 won't send an ambulance unless they can confirm whether the girl can afford it, and the government can barely afford to bring those responsible to justice.
  • Catchphrase: Jennifer has "And yet...", used very sparingly but to great effect;
    "You're arresting me? Are you serious? I don't belong in jail!"
    "And yet," she said.
  • Classical Anti-Hero: Hack, a likeable loser with no real place in the corporate world in which he lives.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The extremely sharp Nike swooshes that are used as door handles at Nike Town are mentioned at the beginning of the book and show up again during the climax.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: John Nike, who initiates the plot by deciding that the best way to improve sales of the newest Nike product line is to kill random teens who buy the shoes.
  • Deconstruction: The novel deconstructs the dystopian fiction genre by flipping its idea of totalitarianism, and exploring the flaws of a society where there is no authority to force accountability for those who have power. Basically, the message is if government becomes weak and lacks power, it will create a power vacuum that will likely be filled by something much less accountable to individual citizens.
  • The Cracker: Violet, who finds herself involved with the cyber side to the corporate war between the loyalty programs. Her virus spreads through anti-virus programs, thus the more paranoid the target, the faster they are infected and their computers bricked.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Calvin Government. He loves doing it to wind up Jennifer.
  • Deliver Us from Evil: After being dumped by John Nike after getting pregnant, Jennifer quit her corporate job and became a Government agent.
  • Demoted to Extra: Holly TA, the Team Advantage boss. This is because the female, TA version of John Nike, Miranda Hewlett-Packard, was dropped in redrafting since she didn't intersect with the other characters. Holly is therefore stuck with only a few short scenes with Violet and John.
  • Dirty Coward: Most people in the book who have genuine moral objections to what the likes of John Nike are up to do not have the courage to speak out about it, the UA executives in particular.
  • Distaff Counterpart: In the first draft, the character Miranda Hewlett-Packard was intended to be this to John Nike, but redrafts dropped her.
  • Distant Finale: An epilogue set twelve years later depicts a reunion between the Pepsi Kid and John just after John's release from jail. The latter tries a charm offensive, and is basically told to go fuck himself.
  • Driven to Suicide: Buy becomes depressed after the girl to whom he gave money to buy sneakers is killed because of the very same shoes. However, he does not know how to use the (very) expensive gun he purchases, and ends up calling Jennifer and asking for help on making the darn thing work. Next Thing They Knew...
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Buy Mitsui gets so drunk that he cannot even properly navigate his wallet after he sees Hayley get gunned down for her shoes.
  • Dystopia: Anything goes if you have the money for it. Everything is privatized, down to emergency services.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The Nike VP of Global Sales finds the extremes that John Nike goes to repugnant. The leading executives of U.S. Alliance are also quick to denounce his plans of a wholly unregulated market as incompatible with their desires once they see them in action, and are more than willing to hang him out to dry.
  • Expanded States of America: Europe, China and Cuba are still independent, but Australia is a recent acquisition and most of the rest of the planet has been incorporated into the American economic empire.
  • Facial Markings: Jennifer's barcode tattoo.
  • Fauxshadowing: The second half of the novel was intended to be more action-packed, before focus groups universally decried the change in tone. Nonetheless, some unused setup remains - an entire chapter is dedicated to John arranging for the NRA to have artillery set up across LA, but pointed at office buildings. Later, specific reference is made to such weapons being pointed at Reebok, a TA company. Ultimately, only one missile ever goes off and it doesn't appear to be connected to any of this.
  • Frivolous Law Suit: They would be, except that in this world, they're entirely serious and will almost always succeed. In one early action sequence, Jennifer is thrown onto a Mercedes in a mall. The company sue her for the damage. The book shows the memo from the legal team, which asks questions such as "Did you consider any alternative courses of action that would not have resulted in destruction of the property" and "What was your mental state at the time?". Simply put, you can sue for almost anything you've lost money over, even if it's completely unavoidable (Addidas are stated to sue you for lost profits if you leave and your replacement isn't as good as you, for example).
  • High Times Alternate Reality: Drugs have been legalized and you can get them at the supermarkets.
  • Humiliation Conga: The main John Nike gets one at the very end. After having his attempt to overthrow the government shot down in front of all his peers, he's arrested by the very woman who he thought he'd had killed. Twelve years of prison later, not only can he literally not get a single job he comes across, he's given a verbal smackdown by the Pepsi liaison who he'd laughed out of the room.
  • Hyperlink Story: The story follows several different plots simultaneously, with Hack, Violet, Billy, Buy and Jennifer all protagonists of their own tales. Eventually everything becomes intertwined as the characters run into one another.
  • Hypocritical Humour: Hack gets annoyed at a fleeing patron stealing trainers during the attack on Nike, only to realize he was planning on doing exactly that during his own escape.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: The other John Nike gets killed in the end by the sharp Nike swoosh handles on the doors.
  • It's All About Me: Violet is actually the worst offender, since John acts on principle. Granted, they're awful, but he's completely fine with everyone else trying what he's doing. Violet, meanwhile, despite suffering genuine slights (the Attempted Rape for one) never accepts responsibility for anything. She even bitches to herself about the courier she beat up to steal her jacket having the audacity to fight back.
  • It's Personal:
    • Jennifer's entire motivation throughout the book has far more to do with her personal history with John than it does actually bringing justice to dead teenagers.
    • The reason Hack usurps Claire's group is to avenge himself against the same John Nike, and by extension the company itself. Subconsciously, it appears to have been the idea from the beginning, but he only explicitly embarks on the path after he's fired.
  • Jerkass: Both Johns, Violet, Holly, and many minor characters. In a society that reveres unregulated capitalism, jerks and selfishness are considered virtues. Hence the characters routinely insult each other and have It's All About Me attitudes.
  • Karma Houdini: A lot. Hack despite his part in arranging the Nike massacre ends up getting away with his girlfriend, Claire, to live a new life. Billy ends up finally skiing in Aspen with a new girlfriend despite his own involvement in almost killing the President. John Nike is a downplayed example; while he only spends a mere twelve years in prison for his crimes despite the murder of multiple kids, the assassination of the US President, and other capital crimes, his Smug Snake attitude offends the one man who could give him a high paying job again after he's released.
  • The Lancer: Calvin Government is this to his partner, Jennifer. He backs her up against numerous threats and helps her fight against the forces of the corporations.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • The other John Nike is beaten half to death for attempting to rape Violet, and later dies in the book's climax.
    • Violet's nastiness is far less than that of either of the John Nikes, but she still treats Hack like dirt throughout and ultimately ends up losing out in the climactic conflict, while Hack ends up with her much nicer sister Claire.
    • On the positive side, Buy gets a meaningful life with Jennifer, having struggled in doing the right thing throughout the book.
  • Law Enforcement, Inc.: The Police, and NRA, though both are closer to mercenary services. The NRA even has a private air force and tanks. Tanks! Not just knockoffs or ancient Russian Surplus, either; the M1A1 Abrams is specifically named, though it could well be obsolete by the time the book takes place.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: John Nike is Kate's biological father, though he never tells her in person.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • People use the name of their employer as their surname, hence all these Billy Bechtel and Jennifer Governments.
    • More specifically, Buy chose that name after he moved from France as it seemed more appropriate for America, especially when one is a stockbroker.
  • Mega-Corp: US Alliance and Team Advantage, two corporate alliances including the most powerful companies in every field. US Alliance includes most of the strongest.
  • More Dakka: The Police and NRA both show this repeatedly. The latter are essentially an army, with a full military hierarchy, bases and vehicles that include tanks. The former have gigantic machineguns mounted on vehicles, and put another on top of a Burger King counter to destroy a McDonalds.
  • Nice Guy: Hack for the first half of the novel, and Buy. Subverted in that Hack is involved in numerous criminal activity, including a mass shooting because he lets people walk all over him.
  • No Name Given: The Pepsi Kid, though he does provide his name on his first appearance, which John ignores and subsequently forgets. He finally reveals it to be Theo in his last (present-day) appearance.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted.
    • The first two characters we meet are John Nike and John Nike.
    • The mix-up between Bill NRA and Billy NRA provides some of the crucial plot developments of the mid-point of the novel.
  • Political Correctness Is Evil: How people in the United States view "Socialist" countries, such as most of Europe, including the belief that the government will cripple the siblings of disabled children in order to make sure that they are equal. A teacher points out that the socialist countries don't actually do that. This is possibly a shout-out to Harrison Bergeron.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: It is not that the executives want to give power back to the government, they just recognize that if there is no regulation or outside moderation then corporations will destroy themselves and drive away their own customers.
  • Private Military Contractor: Both The Police and the NRA, though The Police are more Law Enforcement, Inc. as mentioned above.
  • Privately Owned Society: Everything, including the Police and even the Government, is privatized.
  • Promoted to Parent: Buy, who ends up spontaneously looking after Kate despite knowing nothing about kids, does so extremely well and ends up her stepfather.
  • Protagonist Title: Named for Jennifer, an employee of the Government.
  • Publicity Stunt: The events of the novel are set off when Nike tries to drum up press for its new line of shoes by arranging random shootings in its stores.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Elise Government, Jennifer's boss, is perfectly sensible, doing her best to moderate Jennifer's rage. Even with Calvin's support she's not able to stop her, however.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Nike killing their customers in the novel is such an extreme thing to do that most likely it's what keeps the real Nike from suing Barry. It's just too extreme to believe. Word of God gives this as the author's own understanding of why he hasn't been sued.
  • Ridiculous Future Inflation: Something to be expected in such a society. A single pair of Nike's new Mercury shoes costs $2,500. Most people have huge paychecks and savings to accommodate for this.
  • Rousing Speech: John loves giving these, and he's usually successful. His last one, which is almost identical to his second-last one, falls completely flat. Possibly because he backed up his "The end justifies the means, and all of us have forsaken human life in the name of profit somewhere along the line" by blowing up the plane carrying two thirds of the government's leaders, including the entire top echelon.
  • Running Gag: John forgetting the Pepsi Kid's name, which extends to the very last chapter.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Hayley McDonald, a POV character, but only to give a human face to the Nike massacre that kicks off the book's plot.
  • Saintly Church: The churches run free hospitals, the only medical care a lot of poor people have.
  • Scannable Man: Jennifer has a barcode tattoo under her eye (it is the UPC for a Malibu Barbie). The tattoo is explicitly stated to be purely cosmetic. On the paperback version's cover, they arranged to learn the book's UPC in advance and replaced Jennifer's tattoo on the cover with it so that the book's front cover was scannable too.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Corporations eventually got so powerful that they were able to essentially get almost all of the rules abolished. There are a few characters who want to finish off the rest.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: You pretty much need this attitude to be content working for the Government.
  • Sex for Solace: Buy blames himself for the death of the girl who was killed for the shoes that he helped her buy. He goes out to try washing away the guilt, and winds up going home with Sandy John-Hancock. The next day he recognizes that he will probably never call her again, which is a pity since she actually seemed rather nice, and he later hooks up with Jennifer herself.
  • Skeleton Government: Taxes were abolished years before the events of the book; these days the government mostly tries to prevent crime as it happens, and investigate them if the victims can pay for the investigation.
  • Sliding Scale of Libertarianism and Authoritarianism: A rare bird in these times, a dystopia on the libertarian end.
  • Smug Snake: John Nike is an arrogant controlling jerkass who believes in the abolishment of all government. When he finally loses his leverage over Jennifer Government, he degenerates into a Dirty Coward blubbering for mercy.
  • Strawman Political: To the point of self-parody. John Nike in particular believes that the destruction of the US government is the last impediment to true free market capitalism. He is willing to go to any lengths to see this achieved and doesn't see any potential downsides.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The five main protagonists (Jennifer, Hack, Buy, Billy and Violet), the main antagonist (VP John Nike) and Hayley McDonalds are all POV characters, with the perspective changing with each chapter. There's also a single chapter with an NRA pilot codenamed Jackpot, for no apparent reason than to give a direct look at the assassination of the Government's leadership.
  • Tattooed Crook: Corporate logo-tattooed skinheads.
  • There Are No Good Executives: Bounced back and forth a bit. The ones we have any extended interaction with, anyway (except maybe the Pepsi kid) are pretty much greed on legs, but the corporate executives ultimately vote against John Nike's plans and eject him. They are not exactly saintly, but apparently Even Evil Has Standards.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Hack takes the assertiveness he gets from joining Claire's group too far, alienating them one by one. Claire explicitly says he used to be a lot nicer before it all, but he ends up doing the right thing in the end (thanks to a lot of prodding from her).
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: At one point, there is a reference to one of the main characters working on the '96 Pepsi campaign, but Word of God says that this is a present day story based on an Alternate History. No specific dates are given, with the exception of that reference, to enhance this.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The book does a good job of accounting for all the relevant characters but there are two exceptions:
    • Elise, Jennifer and Calvin's boss. After she tells Jennifer the latter is going to London, she's never heard from again.
    • Georgia Saints-Nike disappears after she's fired, though this is because she no longer has any interaction with the POV characters.
  • Would Hurt a Child: John Nike is willing to have a bunch of kids killed at a mall and succeeds. He later has his own daughter kidnapped.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Violet reduces herself to a "woe is me, everyone's out to get me" pity party. Hack and Claire waste no time in calling her out on the fact that she kidnapped a kid, and is lamenting the fact that she didn't just murder a man.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: Averted, surprisingly without any lawsuits. The evil corporations that are trying to overthrow the US government include Nike, McDonalds, Burger King, and the NRA.